Employment at will = fire at will, but not in the UK

We were recently asked to provide UK payroll services to a West Coast company taking on their first employee in the UK. We scheduled an initial discussion with that company, a software/technology firm in the Bay Area, to find out more about their intentions and what was being offered to the UK hire.

They knew about being paid monthly over here (as is normal for salaried positions) - although we occasionally come across U.S. subsidiaries in the UK struggling to pay bi-monthly (a method that does not fit into the UK tax systems, which supports either weekly or monthly calculations - but not bi-monthly, and is not liked by UK employees).  We talked about car allowances, mileage rates and benefits normally provided in the UK.

We offered to review the UK hire's job offer or contract of employment to check whether there were any potential problems in them.

"No need" we were told. Their U.S. attorneys who confirmed it complied with UK law have reviewed the offer.  Did it include the term employed-at-will?

We knew that the concept of employed at will often was included as being standard in the U.S., and the fact it was not legal in the UK was not generally known to companies new to the UK environment.

Nor, as it transpired, was it known to their U.S. lawyers. "Of course it is included," was the reply.

In the UK, an employee has employment rights that prohibit being dismissed at will. Dismissal must be for a reason (justifiable) and procedures need to be followed even then. These procedures often are set out in the employment contract. Failure to justify their dismissal and/or follow the procedures would lead to hefty claims through employment courts and, potentially, reinstatement.

In the honeymoon period, shorter periods of notice can be built into the job offer (for instance be subject to two weeks' notice on either side during the first three months of employment), but once beyond that probationary period, statutory employment protection legislation would apply.

They came to us as a trusted adviser in the UK capable of giving impartial and practical local help. Having now heard about this illegal term, they were going back to the potential hire to renegotiate the deal with them (and get the contractual aspects reviewed in the UK).

Employment at will - normal in the U.S. - is an alien concept in the UK.

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